Farmers’ hope on the struggling Kapeng Barako industry

By Maria Izza Christiana C. Arce, Gilliane O. Del Rosario, and Jacob Immanuel L. Gando

Antonio “Ka Tunying” Mojares with one of his liberica trees. He is 74 years old, and doesn’t have anyone to pass his farm down to. This is a common problem among farmers in the Philippines.

The Kapeng Barako has been a longtime staple on the pinoy breakfast table. But what was once one of the country’s vital agricultural exports is now an industry in deep peril. Amid decades of administrative neglect and loss of workforce, on top of eruptions of the Taal Volcano and a worldwide pandemic, the coffee’s industry remains, but is hanging by a thread.

Lipa City in Batangas is known for being a major coffee producer in Luzon. The city specializes in the farming and production of a special variety of coffee — the liberica, or the kapeng barako, a blend that is remarkably Filipino.

“Liberica has a distinct taste,” said Arnold Malbataan, a coffee farmer in Lipa. “[Malalasahan mo] yung mga flavor notes tulad ng langka o hinog na saba o mangga.

The coffee industry in the Philippines originated from a coffee plant brought by two Franciscan friars to what was called ‘Lumang Lipa’ in the 1700s, becoming a booming industry by the 19th century.

Dr. Ma. Carmen Ablan-Lagman, a professor at De La Salle University (DLSU) Manila also expressed that liberica (kapeng barako) is what is very important for the economy at the moment since the majority of the buyers particularly look for ‘authentic barako coffee.’

“Globally, the production of liberica (barako) is only one or two percent. So, you could really say that the liberica that we drink is rare,” she explained.

Aside from liberica, Lipa farmers also plant other varieties of coffee like the robusta and the excelsa. According to Dr. Ablan-Lagman, the Philippines is only one of three or four countries that farms all varieties of coffee.

Struggles of the coffee industry

Kapeng barako being dried and prepared for roasting at a farm in Lipa City, Batangas

One challenge that coffee farmers face is the low income that the farmers receive in the coffee industry. Malbataan shared that to solve this problem, the coffee that is being produced by the farmers should be exported.

However, local traders can no longer increase the prices of the coffee due to challenges in the market.

“Di namin kayang i-angat ang presyo ng kape dahil maraming dumadating na imported. Malbataan says.

Malbataan also said that imports of varieties of coffee from different countries label their coffee as ‘kapeng barako’ even if they are not. He added that Lipa farmers need to have technology that can determine the identity and quality of the local homegrown coffee beans to differentiate them from other coffee beans in the market.

Climate change has also contributed to the decline in the production of coffee. Malbataan expressed that since there is no regular schedule for harvesting coffee fruits, it is difficult for coffee farmers to earn money, with many abandoning the coffee crop or multi-cropping to earn a living.

Arguably the most difficult problem coffee farmers are facing is their old age—most are past their 50s and 60s. With the youth no longer encouraged to take up farming, the future of the local coffee industry is uncertain.

Antonio “Tunying” Mojares, 74, another local coffee farmer in Lipa City, said that, “Kapag ako ay kinuha na ng Panginoon, wala nang hahalili sa akin.”

A silver lining

Despite the decline in the harvesting and production of coffee during the pandemic, coffee farmers have been given an alternative opportunity to sell their coffee through online selling. Mojares expressed that selling his harvested coffee online has helped his family through these trying times.

Dr. Ablan-Lagman further shared that in the global market, there has been an increase in the interest in Philippine coffee during the pandemic since the group Samahan ng Magkakape sa Lipa was able to export to the United States. The last time this happened was in the 1940s.

The Samahan ng Magkakape sa Lipa is currently comprised of approximately 255 coffee farmers. These coffee farmers are situated in different areas around Lipa, spanning 35 to 42 barangays, adds Malbataan, the Chairperson of the group.

There is hope

Dr. Ablan-Lagman and other Pinoy scientists are working to help kapeng barako gain footing in the industry through scientific innovations.

One scientific innovation that is currently being done is the identification of coffee beans. This stemmed from the molecular genome research done by Dr. Ablan-Lagman where she and her team created an application called ‘crabifier’ to see the molecular background of different varieties of crabs. This would help buyers distinguish pure coffee beans from hybrids.

She is also working on coffee plant breeding. “The other thing was to be able to do mass propagation very quickly in the context of a farm school, hindi hi-tech laboratory,” she said.

Along with these innovations is the quality certification system for liberica. This, Dr. Ablan-Lagman said, would be very helpful for the coffee farmers in Lipa City since their locally homegrown coffee will have a certification seal that it is pure liberica.

“If you want coffee in agri to remain a viable business, [invest] so that land will not be cemented. We have to find things like this which can then compete for the value and the farmers,” she emphasized.

These innovations could help bolster the industry and the lives of coffee farmers not just in Luzon, but in the entire country.

“There should be structural changes where we put incentives, we develop and invest in our farms. Science has a big way to do this,” Dr. Ablan-Lagman says, emphasizing that there should be a campaign to patronize local Philippine coffee.